Do MMOs Purposefully Exploit Human Psychology?
Back in “the day” (read: late 80s & 90s), video games were simple things. You bought them, you played them, you moved on (unless you were an obsessive nutcase or Japanese). There was no such thing as downloadable content and the concept of achievements and trophies was rare. Today though, we’re flooded with it. You can barely look at a game on either the PC or a console and not see adverts for DLC or the billions of things you can accomplish inside it. It seems to be happening in every genre of game but it seems most prevalent and heavy handed in MMOs.
Aside from our natural instincts to compete and socialise (things which MMOs dish out in spades), most of us have a real basic calling to collect and complete. Old MMORPGs sucked us in through the idea of levels, gear and even Alternate Advancement points yet new and/or updated games offer these factors in even more abundance. Everquest 2 has player housing and collectible shinies (I’ve witnessed entire groups wiped out by the cursed call of “ooh look, a shiny!”) , Lord of the Rings Online has Deeds, Warhammer Online has the Tome of Knowledge, EVE has hundreds of skills and World of Warcraft has more of these sort of achievements than you could shake a Chinese gold farmer at. And they’re constantly on the increase too. Every expansion, every patch, every new MMO brings more and more achievements, tradeskills, trophies, unlocks and meta games, all designed to give us more things to do and accomplish in an attempt at endless entertainment.
The great irony of it all is that most MMOs now claim to be more “accessible” and “casual” than ever before. Sure, 10 years ago it took 2,000 hours to hit the level cap in Everquest and three years to travel between continents whereas now in WoW you can hit level 85 in a day and instantly teleport pretty much anywhere. But what all about of those little “extras” a game like Warcraft offers? My guess is that if you totalled up every little achievement, guild level, tradeskill (I’m looking at you Archaeology), heroic item, faction reputation and anything else I’ve probably missed out, you’d be looking at a far, far greater number of hours to “complete” WoW than the original EQ.
The big difference between MMOs now and those of yesteryear is, in fact, not the time it takes to complete everything but rather the time it takes to complete a single thing. Instead of taking a week to gain a single level, we can knock them out in a matter of hours (or sometimes even minutes). Yet, we are also presented with an utterly vast number of alternative tasks, goals and collections, many totally meaningless and each appealing to our desire to collect, complete and feel the twang of pleasure from that nano-second of synapse firing.
Strangely enough these simple tasks seems to grip many of us more than the main focus of a MMO ever could and I’m continually astounded at just how many people will willing invest the magnitude of hours it can take into fulfilling a collection of shinies in EQ2 or obtaining some meaningless reputation Achievement in WoW that no one else will ever even know about. Indeed it seems often that we become caught up and obsessed with the endless variety of extras that plague these games.
So the question is, do developers take advantage of this fact on purpose? I mean, are they just honestly giving us more, optional content or are they actually trying to exploit the human condition in order to make us play more? After all, the more we play the more we pay and if a game never ends we have less motivation to unsubscribe. Where is the line drawn between giving us fun, worthwhile and value-for-money content and setting us up purposefully with mindless, repetitive activities that result in artificial synapse dings that enthrall each of us like we’re gibbons in a cage with a Rubik’s cube?
Truthfully, it’s probably a very melodramatic question and I don’t really believe that MMO creators are actively trying to manipulate our subconscious into enslaving us to their game. However, there is no doubt in my mind that they have unwittingly tapped into a very powerful and compelling combination of facets which appeal to the human psyche and attract us like bees to honey. And, if that truly is the case, who’s responsibility is to monitor and limit it all? Should we be free to allow ourselves to be enthralled by a never-ending achievement culture or should there be restrictions in place to protect us from harm?